Recent Innovations in the MBA Admissions Process

September 24, 2015 | by Matt Symonds

With the start of the new 2015-2016 MBA admissions cycle, the world’s best business schools are receiving a flood of transcripts, resumes, GMAT scores, recommendations and essays from MBA applicants who have spent the past few months focusing on the application materials that they hope will secure a place for themselves in these competitive programs.

And with a busy calendar of deadlines, MBA admissions departments are looking for innovative ways to evaluate the qualifications, motivations, and mindsets of applicants. In recent years there has been a trend towards shorter, easier application forms, with many schools, including Harvard Business School, reducing the number of essays required, or significantly shortening the word length. Other programs, such as Yale SOM and Kellogg, have incorporated video essays in their applications, while Michigan Ross and Wharton now include Team Based Discussions as part of the interview process.

But are some b-schools taking it too far in their efforts to develop new ways to identify the best students for their business schools? UC Berkeley Haas asks applicants, If you could choose one song that expresses who you are, what is it and why? Meanwhile, Chicago Booth changed this year’s application to require applicants to select one of sixteen photos provided by Booth to “tell us how it resonates with your own viewpoint on why the Booth community is the right fit for you.” Booth’s admissions’ team explains that the school values individuality, collaborative thinking and different viewpoints’ to cultivate new ideas and realize breakthrough moments every day.’

Got it?

What ever happened to the classic essay questions about your professional goals and why you want to attend business school? These traditional themes can still be found at some top programs, including Dartmouth’s Tuck School of Business. After removing one of the school’s required essays last year, the remaining essays for Tuck ask about MBA goals and leadership. At one of Europe’s top business schools, INSEAD, the 2016 application still includes up to ten essay questions about your career goals, achievements and personal motivations. Caroline Diarte-Edwards, former Admissions Director at INSEAD and a co-founder at Fortuna Admissions, believes that the school prefers its lengthier format: INSEAD gets a holistic view of the candidate, given the breadth of its essay questions. Caroline explains that INSEAD candidates should feel satisfied that they’ve been given a change to convey a complete picture of who they are and what they have to offer. She also explains that this is in contrast to candidates applying to US-based schools who agonize over much shorter and non-traditional application formats. These applicants to US schools often have a difficult time finding the opportunity within their applications to communicate key points that they feel are important to their profile.

So with upcoming deadlines approaching, how can you prepare for your applications to secure a spot in one of the top business schools? And how can you translate what you’ve leaned through self-reflection and individual assessment into a convincing and personal narrative while staying within the required word limits and format?

As one place to start, we suggest the Duke Fuqua essay question, “Share with us your list of 25 random things about you”. Catherine Tuttle, a coach at Fortuna Admissions and a former Associate Program Director at Fuqua, feels that this question is a great brainstorming exercise to get you going, whether you’re planning to apply to Duke or not. Duke’s question shows just how keen Fuqua Admissions is to get to know its prospective students, and requires an in-depth level of introspection. While some of the best responses will look random, in reality, they will be carefully curated and delivered. Specific examples that highlight your professional and personal passions, fragments from your past that have helped you develop into the person you have become, and snapshots that identify hobbies, travels, and unique fun facts will all assist in bringing your application (and personality) to life. In the process of defining your accomplishments and achievements, don’t think only about the achievements themselves, but what they say about you and how you approach challenges and opportunities.

For schools with multi-part questions like MIT Sloan, which asks “Tell us about a recent success you had: How did you accomplish this? Who else was involved? What hurdles did you encounter? What type of impact did this have?,” this is a great opportunity for you to focus on a specific accomplishment that makes you proud. This type of question also allows you to highlight your team skills. Whatever examples you choose, make sure you can identify a concrete outcome with specific results and far-reaching organizational or community impact.

As for Harvard Business School, with its essay that asks you to introduce yourself to your HBS classmates on the first day of school, a key point to remember is that, if admitted, you may be asked to read it aloud. So not only does this essay need to create immediate impact with the admissions team, it should also read well as an interesting personal introduction to your classmates. Malvina Miller Complainville, former Assistant Director of Career Services at HBS suggests, “You need to strike the right tone: respectful but not too formal, friendly but not too light. Keep the overall tone positive.”

And now back to Chicago Booth, with the sixteen photos question. We suggest that a good starting point is to think carefully about the text accompanying the essay question, taking account of Booth’s appreciation for questioning assumptions, diverse perspectives, collaboration, and risk-taking. According to Fortuna coach, Julie Ferguson, former Senior Associate Director of Admissions at Chicago Booth, “It’s important to select the image that best resonates with you, so think carefully about how both the photo, and your response, represent you and your achievements, and the fit with the school.”

Through all of these innovations in admissions that we’re seeing, one thing that’s clear is that MBA application essays across the different programs will continue to range from the standard and relatively old-fashioned, to the slightly weird and wonderful. The application process itself, when approached in a reflective and thoughtful and manner, will continue to provide an unmatched opportunity for self-discovery and development. Dedicating the time to communicate your individual experiences and ambitions in a personal way, whether through essays, powerpoint slides or video, will ultimately help your targeted b-schools understand exactly what value and contribution you will bring as a member of their next MBA class.

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